Oregon Garlic, With a Twist

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IT’S THE DEAD OF WINTER, but the soil at Whistling Duck Farm is alive with tiny shoots that resemble the first hints of spring flowers. There are bulbs hiding under this patch of Southern Oregon ground, but they aren’t the kind that yield crocuses or daffodils. The 600-foot-long rows will produce another harbinger of spring: garlic.

photo by Ezra Marcos

Whistling Duck Farm owners Mary and Vince Alionis tweaked a business model to go beyond growing the pungent member of the Allium family for local farm stands. The majority of their garlic is used for seed, with the remainder going to their line of fermented food products and the fresh market. Finding multiple uses for one product helps these self-described “compulsive entrepreneurs” minimize waste and earn enough money to keep the farm going from year to year.

“We used to have a lot of interns, and I would tell them, ‘If you’re going to be a farmer, you have to want to run a business,'” Mary said.

The Alionises have been sowing garlic since they first started farming in the early 1990s. Some farming friends grew the product for seed and helped them get started. Garlic grows not from traditional seed, but from individual cloves. To get the best results, those cloves need to be planted in October or November so they have time to develop roots before the ground freezes. A few of Mary’s favorite varieties are Inchelium, an artichoke garlic; hardneck varieties Spanish roja and German red; and silverskin, a softneck that looks beautiful when the stems are braided.

Fresh green garlic can be harvested in the spring—and sold at the farmers’ market starting in April—but full-blown heads of garlic aren’t ready until June or July. The bulbs are pulled from the ground and evaluated, with the highest quality stock going to seed. The garlic is dried and cleaned before it is shipped to farmers beginning in September. Anything not used for seed is sold to customers through Whistling Duck’s farm store or used in its line of fermented products.

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photos by Ezra Marcos

The Alionises inherited the fermenting business from another farming friend. It fit into their desire to provide healthy food to everyone, including people with compromised immune systems and unusual food allergies. In addition to creating favorites such as sauerkraut and pickles, Mary now makes kimchis with unusual combinations, such as burdock, nettles and escarole.

This year she also started making fermented foods with garlic scapes. In the spring, hardneck garlic plants produce a long, curly stem with what looks like a flowering pod at the end. Known as scapes, they have a light garlicky flavor and can be removed to encourage the garlic to grow. Mary uses them in a fermented garlic scape paste and as an ingredient in other products. “They look pretty in the jars and you don’t have to peel all that garlic,” she said.

Vince loves growing all Alliums, even if they present some challenges. “These are plants that have evolved with humans and their care,” he said. The thin leaves don’t compete well for sunlight, which means minimizing weeds is vital. This is a struggle for organic farmers especially. He admits to sometimes working on Christmas day to remove “botanica non grata.”

What Vince likes about garlic is that it fits well into their business plan. Since it stays nicely preserved, it gives workers an additional way to keep busy during the winter months. “You’ve got to figure out how to do things so you can survive until next year,” he said.

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photo by Ezra Marcos

From a business perspective, growing seed garlic in Oregon makes a lot of sense. According to Chip Bubl, an extension agent at Oregon State University, California is the nation’s largest fresh garlic producer. Yet garlic grown continuously in places such as the San Joaquin Valley will eventually produce smaller and smaller cloves. To get seed garlic to make larger cloves, farmers need to grow it at a high elevation or in a northern state for a year. “That’s one of garlic’s little mysteries,” Bubl said. It’s the reason Central Oregon grows the majority of the state’s crop. Farms around Madras dedicate up to 9,000 acres to garlic annually. The Willamette Valley has up to 6,000 acres, and Southern Oregon has closer to 150 acres.

Plants grown for the fresh market go to places such as C Street Bistro in Jacksonville, where chef Paul Becking whips it into a garlic confit mousse tomato tart.

Garlic is a key ingredient in Italian food and is at its best in spaghetti aglio e olio, or spaghetti with garlic and oil. Beppe & Gianni’s Trattoria in Eugene shares a recipe from Napoli for this traditional pasta.

“The simplicity of the dish is enhanced by the quality of ingredients you use,” said chef Brett Adamo. Invest in some good quality extra virgin olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano cheese before getting started in the kitchen.

Continuing the world tour, try fresh garlic in a simple garlic sauce from Al-Amir Lebanese Restaurant in Portland. Moe Achour said the family-owned restaurant makes everything from scratch, including this pungent sauce. The key to getting it right is to use a blender or food processor, which will allow the oil to emulsify with the wet ingredients. It is also important to use fresh garlic.

Achour said the sauce is good on everything from seafood to poultry to sandwiches. To use it as a salad dressing, add a little bit of oregano along with the salt.

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photos by Ezra Marcos

2 Comments

  • Very interesting article! I had no idea that garlic scrapes could be used in fermented products or that to get seed garlic to make larger cloves, farmers needed to grow it at a high elevation or in a northern state for a year. The pictures tell a story too and add to the article.

  • Sounds deliciously wonderful! I reread looking for Achour's recipe for his sauce/salad dressing?!? Gee!, if I were to create a sauce, I would need to start with hmmm…

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